Words can hurt more than sticks and stones

I knew a man once, a very dear friend, who was in a horrendously abusive marriage.

The abuse came in the form of the language which was deployed against him by his wife. To be sure, it wasn’t only that; there was violence too, but it was the language that was the most alarming.

I know this because he felt that no one could possibly believe how depraved and evil it was unless they could actually hear a recording, and that he duly made; several of them. I was stunned.

The recordings were full of the vilest language our otherwise beautiful tongue has yet conjured up. Truly, soldiers and sailors in their billets or berths couldn’t have ‘bettered’ it.

I asked him why he didn’t get out of it and he replied that he didn’t want to lose his children. What could I say to that? He was of the opinion that there is a gap in the law which fails to recognise verbal violence as being as damaging, in many respects, as physical.

As a boy we got used to the corny old saying ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me’. Yet, as we grew older we came to see this for the absolute nonsense it was.

It was perfectly possible not so many years ago to say just about anything you wanted to say: it was called Freedom of Speech, and that ‘holy cow’ allowed us to call people spastics, coons, yids, mental retards, Nancy boys, cripples and an endless repertoire of other demeaning terms.

Look, for example, at what passed for entertainment on the television. Alf Garnett at bay in Till Death Do Us Part or the ‘funny’ man Bernard Manning in full flow.

It took us a long time, but we came to realise that such bigoted, verbal diarrhoea could not be tolerated in a civilised society. Freedom of Speech had to have some limits. It could not be used to pillory and degrade minorities. We actually had long before come to recognise that when we created the law of blasphemy.

To say that words cannot hurt is to state the purest form of rubbish possible. Words can scar (for life); they can destroy self esteem; humiliate and degrade; crush the spirit; and can even drive a person mad.

Although referring to language’s written form, its message holds true even in the spoken form. ‘The Pen is Mightier than the Sword.’

Language is the most powerful weapon we can ever deploy against a person.

Not before time, society set about addressing this very real problem in its midst. And so a whole new industry was born: it is called ‘political correctness’, although in many of its aspects it might, more accurately, be described as ‘behavioural correctness’.

Few would deny that we were right to tackle this cruel form of abuse and are the better for having done so.

Only verbal abuse of the elderly is still permitted and I worry at what it says about us that we have allowed this most vulnerable sector of our society – the one to which we owe everything we have – to remain almost the last to receive such protection.

Like all new industries, the people whose jobs depend on it feel they have to keep up the momentum; justify, if you like, their existence. They spread the net wider and wider and probe into the most unlikely and deepest of recesses looking for that ever more elusive injustice.

If things go on as they are we may arrive at a situation where we are afraid to open our mouths lest we commit a felony.

The free flow of conversation itself may end up being imperilled as we put ourselves on mental override before we release our thoughts to a live audience.

I feel the time has come to put a brake on this whole burgeoning industry of political correctness.

Yes, we were right to look at all aspects of how we do things and what we say. Fairness and equality, along with tolerance, must always remain central to our way of thinking. But we are in danger, as always, of allowing the locomotive to run out of control.

It is interesting to note that we are not alone in wrestling with these thorny problems. The French are about to abolish the term ‘mademoiselle’ at the very time we are about to ban ‘Mrs’ on all government documents. Should the quaint term ‘Spinster’, still featured at every Registry Office, also be consigned to the dustbin of history?

While a very necessary transformation has taken place, it is important that we don’t end up making fools of ourselves and creating a lawyers’ paradise where all concerned argue, ad nauseam, as to whether offense was intended and the law breached.

Things are getting sillier by the minute.

Is it sensible to ban wolf whistles? Who will know which navvy among the many was the culprit? In any case, where’s the offence? My ex used to love it when she walked past a building site. She was guaranteed one every time.

Whilst not ordinarily in favour of any governmental expansion (in fact I am in favour of the reverse) I might be prepared to consider one exception: a new Ministry of Common Sense.

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About tomhmackenzie

Born Derek James Craig in 1939, I was stripped of my identity and renamed Thomas Humphreys in the Foundling Hospital's last intake of illegitimate children. After leaving the hospital at 15, I managed to find work in a Fleet Street press agency before being called up for National Service with the 15th/19th The King's Royal Hussars who were, at that time, engaged with the IRA in Northern Ireland. Following my spell in the Army, I sought out and located my biological parents at age 20. I then became Thomas Humphrey Mackenzie and formed the closest of relationships with my parents for the rest of their lives. All this formed the basis of my book, The Last Foundling (Pan Macmillan), which went on to become an international best seller.

Posted on March 20, 2012, in miscellaneous, society, UK and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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